Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Foster, "What Are We Talking About...Composition"

Foster, David. "What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Composition?" JAC 8 (1988): 30-40.

Foster sets up a tension between scientistic and humanistic approaches to composition by giving a reading of three seminal texts: Beach and Bridwell's New Directions in Composition (1984), Hillocks's Research on Written Composition (1986), and North's The Making of Knowledge in Composition (1987). He is foremost concerned with composition's status as a discipline, and he builds toward a provocative conclusion (what will we refuse to know?) by working through each of these books and suggesting the implications of an approach to composition that depends too narrowly on empirical research, on models of mind and process that do little to account for context, and on the limits of replication as a reliability indicator in scientific research (34). Empirical exclusivity is problematic, Foster contends, because it renders codependent theoretical development and empirical evidence (34). Humanistic approached to composition, on the contrary, "flouris[h] through dialectic, in which one mode of thinking draws life [energy!] in response to all other modes of thought, none ever permanently 'disproved' or abandoned" (35).

In an affirmation of humanistic models, Foster mentions Bitzer's triad, recent research on audience, and Fish and Blech's work on "interpretive communities" (36). Furthermore, Foster notes the trap of dualistic thinking [killer dichotomies?]: "The scientific and humanistic ways of knowing can carry equal power for the knower, provided he or she understands the different processes of knowledge upon which each depends. We know some things as humanists, some things as scientists, and we can accommodate each way of knowing into our total field of awareness--so that we can prevent ourselves from being trapped into dualistic either-or thinking" (37).

Foster's final criticism of Hillocks centers on Hillocks' conclusion that there is relatively little research on audience. Foster contends that Hillocks consideration of other research is heavily qualified by a narrow set of brackets, brackets neglecting to include a number of audience studies on the basis of methodology. This is the final argument before Foster's compelling conclusion: "To refuse this invitation to an intellectual pluralism, to settle in its place for a single perspective, is to invite the punishment we all hated in grade school: having to write the same sentence one hundred times. In this case, it would be 'I will not know. I will not know. I will not know...' (38).

"Each study also conveys a sense of the dynamic, changing nature of 'composition,' a feeling that it is enlarging its boundaries faster than its mapmakers can chart" (31).

"The assumption informing both books [Beach and Bridwell; Hillocks] is this: composition is an empirically verifiable field of knowledge which, under the right conditions, can grow through hypothesis and experiment toward a truer picture of what teachers must know to nurture literacy" (32).

"Applied to composition, this powerful idea [natural laws] requires us to believe that beneath the activities collectively called 'writing' are inherent laws which, when discovered, will permit us to understand, predict, and even control such activities" (33).

"But can scientific knowledge be a real foundation for teaching discourse?" (34).

"Indeed, we must turn to North's thorough, deliberate anatomizing of all the major modes of inquiry in composition to get anything like a satisfying picture of the competing ideologies in current composition study" (35).

Related sources:
Beach, Richard, and Lillian S. Bridwell, eds. New Directions in Composition Research: Perspectives in Writing Research. New York: Guilford, 1984.
Connors, Robert J. "Composition Studies and Science." College English 45 (1983): 1-20.
Cooper, Marilyn. "The Ecology of Writing." College English 48 (1986): 364-75.
Hillocks, George, Jr. Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching. Urbana: NCRE-ERIC, 1986.
North, Stephen. The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field. Upper Montclair, NY: Boynton, 1987.
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